Nepal: Oxygen, vaccines and essential medical supplies urgently needed amid devastating Covid-19 wave 

Nepal’s politicians must set aside their differences and take decisive action in the coming weeks to save thousands of lives as the country endures a deadly second wave of Covid-19, said Amnesty International in a new briefing published today, which also calls for increased support from the international community.  

While Nepal’s leaders have engaged in infighting that has seen the country’s parliament dissolved twice in the past five months, Covid-19 has run rampant. Nepal currently has one of the world’s highest infection rates and, in April, the country’s Ministry of Health projected an additional 300,000 cases by July. Nepal’s infrastructure is already creaking under current caseloads, with dire shortages of oxygen, ICU beds, personal protective equipment and vaccines.  

According to a UN report released on 14 May, Nepal had the highest ‘effective rate of reproduction’ and highest test positivity rate of any country in the world. The current crisis is being exacerbated by a mutated virus that leads to higher levels of mortality, and additional complications such as pneumonia, which is increasing demand for oxygen. The lack of Covid-19 vaccines has also severely hampered the country’s efforts to reduce the burden on the health system and curb the spread of the virus. 

The country’s health care system is teetering, with hospitals reaching capacity, and overstretched, hopelessly under-resourced staff are unable to keep up with overwhelming demand
Yamini Mishra, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Director

“We are currently seeing the same desperate situation play out in Nepal that we saw in India over recent months. The country’s health care system is teetering, with hospitals reaching capacity, and overstretched, hopelessly under-resourced staff are unable to keep up with overwhelming demand,” said Yamini Mishra, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Director.  

“Right now, to save thousands of lives, Nepal’s authorities must prioritize the procurement and supply of oxygen, which until now has been held up by inaction and bureaucratic wrangling. For its part, the international community must urgently provide supplies of oxygen, ventilators, vaccines and other life-saving products.” 

The briefing, Struggling to Breathe: The Second Wave of Covid-19 in Nepal, examines the virus’ devastating impact on the country’s underfunded health system and the consequences of medicine and equipment shortages for hospital staff and Covid-19 patients. The briefing also addresses the so far inadequate response of Nepal’s authorities, and the particularly harsh impact the pandemic is having on the country’s most marginalized groups. 

Covid-19 has spread rapidly across Nepal in recent months and is currently widespread across all seven of its provinces. While public health experts believe that the number of deaths is being underestimated, as of 7 June, 7,990 Covid-19 deaths had been registered in Nepal according to government figures, with the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) projecting a total of 34,887 deaths by 1 September 2021. 

The international community has to come together and provide unequivocal support to global mechanisms such as COVAX to ensure equitable access to vaccines
Yamini Mishra

One health worker Amnesty International spoke to summed up the scale of the situation at his hospital as being “like that of a war zone”. Another described the crisis as being worse than the devastating earthquake that hit Nepal in April 2015, which killed almost 9,000 people and injured almost 22,000. 

Nepal, like other countries across South Asia, is also facing a drastic shortage of vaccines. As of 10 May 2021, less than 2.5 million of Nepal’s 30 million population had received even one jab - fewer than one in ten people. COVAX, a global initiative to help low- and middle-income countries access vaccines is falling short on its commitments and richer countries continue to hoard surplus supplies well beyond their requirements. 

“Nepal desperately needs more vaccines to help combat this deadly second wave of Covid-19. While countries like China and the US have now pledged to provide vaccines to Nepal, this is not enough. The international community has to come together and provide unequivocal support to global mechanisms such as COVAX to ensure equitable access to vaccines and prioritize resource and technology transfer to produce vaccines locally,” said Yamini Mishra. 

The period reviewed in this briefing is from 29 April to 21 May 2021. The Covid-19 situation in Nepal is changing daily, and the number of infections recorded since mid-May 2021 appears to be reducing as of 7 June. However, the urgent requirements noted in this briefing remain relevant for Nepal as it continues to battle a high caseload spread across the country.